Design & Innovation

Instructions Not Included: How Usability Made the User Guide Redundant

The death of the instruction manual has long been on the cards

1 min read

A row of IBM-branded binders on a bookshelf.
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The six-year-old Colombian stableboy had never seen a computer or mobile phone before, let alone an iPad. Yet when Michael Noer, executive news editor at Forbes, handed his over, in his own words a small miracle happened. “He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me.”

Amazing as it sounds, we shouldn’t be too surprised. The death of the instruction manual has long been on the cards.

In Ethiopia, schoolchildren were given boxed Motorola tablets–again, with no instruction. Not only did they figure out how to power them up, but within five months they were customizing, reconfiguring, and hacking the devices. “We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought the kids would just play with the boxes,” said Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop per Child program at MIT.

What happened here, and in countless other farms and playgrounds the world over, is a far cry from the early days of computing. In 2002, Toshiba’s Microsoft Windows 3.1 Users Manual boasted 650 illustrated pages. Back then, reaching for a manual was considered a prerequisite for use.

Not today. Instruction manuals are largely a thing of the past, their presence seen almost as an admission of a poorly designed product. “Quick Start Guides” are about as close as we get. As the technology industry strives for the ultimate in user experience, designing products which people can use immediately, out of the box, has become the holy grail.

Usability becomes even more of an issue when you consider most of the technology sector’s future growth forecast is set to come from emerging markets, not the safe havens where many of the products were conceived.

This represents something of a shift. The cultural and geographical landscapes across the developing world are quickly becoming the test bed of choice for global technology companies. Facebook, for example, sent a team to Africa to test the pre-release version of its Android app. The app crashed repeatedly, was painfully slow to load, and used up a month’s worth of data within just 40 minutes, according to a blog post by the engineers. The app went through a much-needed overhaul as a result, and is almost certainly the better for it.

If an app works under these conditions, then it’ll work anywhere. Or so the thinking goes.

There may be a digital divide between the global North and South, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from the constrained, the less connected, or the less technologically savvy. The next time you upgrade your phone, give a thought to the Colombian stableboy or Ethiopian schoolchild if it does precisely what you expect, and simply works out of the box.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Design & Innovation section, which looks at new devices, concepts, and inventions that are changing our world. Click the logo to read more.